EEOC Rules that Sexual Orientation Discrimination Violates Title VII

July 29, 2015

In a recent case involving a federal employee, Baldwin v. Foxx, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) ruled that sexual orientation discrimination is sex discrimination and therefore violates Title VII. The EEOC is the final decision-making authority in most federal sector cases alleging employment discrimination. While this case involved a federal employee, the ruling has broad implications to impact the way Title VII is interpreted for private sector employees.

Because the EEOC is a federal rule-making authority, its interpretation of Title VII is afforded deference by federal courts in most circumstances. As a result of the decision in Baldwin, it will arguably be less of a reach for federal judges to find that sexual orientation claims are actionable as a matter of law. To date, several federal courts have found that sexual orientation claims are not actionable under Title VII; however, one federal district court last year permitted a claim based on sexual orientation to proceed.

The EEOC’s decision rests in the same logic followed by the Supreme Court in its Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins decision in 1989, finding that discrimination based on gender stereotyping is sex discrimination. In the Baldwin case, the EEOC noted that disapproval of someone based on sexual orientation is tantamount to disapproval of that individual’s failure to conform to stereotypes or expectations about his or her gender. The Commission wrote that “[d]iscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is premised on sex-based preferences, assumptions, expectations, stereotypes, or norms.”

Make no mistake, this is an impactful landmark decision that, absent explicit protections for gay, lesbian and bisexual employees, will bring aggrieved employees one step closer to relief.   Congress can strengthen Title VII and help root out discrimination against LGBT persons in the workplace by amending Title VII to include sexual orientation and gender identity and expression as protected classes.

If you’re an employee who has suffered from a termination, demotion, harassment, hostile work environment, or some other adverse action based on your sexual orientation, you should speak with an attorney about your situation.  Employers:  dust off your handbooks and add sexual orientation and gender identity and expression to your anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies.

~ The Noble Law Firm is a boutique Labor and Employment Law Firm in Chapel Hill, NC.  Founded in 2009, The Noble Law Firm provides forward-thinking trusted employment law counsel and assertive representation on key employment issues to individuals experiencing problems in their employment relationship and companies wishing to execute “best practices” to improve employment relations and minimize litigation exposure.